The drive toward cleaner air

Last week’s megablackout in the Northeast couldn’t have been more timely for this week’s Southern Energy & Environment Expo. The catastrophe proved no problem for folks living off the grid and relying on stand-alone electrical power systems. It was probably only a minor annoyance for others who were Y2K-ready and had held onto gas-powered generators bought for that much-ballyhooed non-event.

The Expo will feature dozens of discussions, presentations and workshops about how we generate and use power. Those programs will cover a wide variety of topics, ranging from the hands-on how-to to the stop-and-think-about-it (see sidebar, “To SEEE and do”).

Something in the air

The overwhelming consensus of scientists around the world is that human activity — primarily the burning of fossil fuels — is causing alarming global climate change. The present U.S. administration (which includes such high-level ex-oil-company executives as President George Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Commerce Secretary Don Evans, National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, and EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman) opposes restrictions on greenhouse-gas emissions.

That hasn’t prevented most of the rest of the industrialized world (which is committed to reducing its greenhouse-gas emissions to below 1990 levels per the Kyoto Protocol) and the state of California (which passed the nation’s first law limiting greenhouse-gas emissions from autos) from taking serious steps to address air-quality issues. (The Bush administration has joined auto makers General Motors and DaimlerChrysler in a lawsuit to block California’s law, convinced a federal court to issue a stay blocking implementation until 2005 and has refused to endorse the Kyoto accord. Closer to home, the Bush administration’s so-called “Clear Skies Initiative” will block key provisions of North Carolina’s recently enacted Clean Smokestacks Act.) But the global demand for cleaner cars, coupled with uniformly high gas prices outside the U.S., is now pushing some automakers to produce less-polluting, more fuel-efficient alternatives to conventional vehicles.

The current geopolitical situation is also shining the spotlight on the inherent problems caused by reliance on foreign oil. As former Vice President Al Gore observed in a speech in New York City two weeks ago, “It is obvious to most Americans that we have had one too many wars in the Persian Gulf and that we need an urgent effort to develop environmentally sustainable substitutes for fossil fuels.” And Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean — now the front-runner in New Hampshire, Iowa, and California polls — explicitly includes efficiency and alternative fuels in his consideration of Mideast policy.

But many less-polluting alternatives are already available. This week’s Southern Energy & Environment Expo highlights the shift toward more efficient transportation and breathable air with a Clean Air Car Fair. The educational display of the “greenest” vehicles now on the market, including hybrids (cars that use both internal-combustion and electric motors), electric vehicles, compressed natural gas (CNG) trucks, bio-diesel- and vegetable-oil-powered diesel engines as well as fuel-cell vehicles. The showcase was organized by the Henderson County-based Environment and Conservation Organization, which has staged two similar but smaller demonstrations in recent years.

A clean-air rally scheduled for 3 p.m. Friday afternoon will give concerned citizens a chance to sound off on the issue. The rally follows a forum featuring speakers from North Carolina’s State Energy Office, the N.C. Department of Transportation, the Canary Coalition and Citizens for Transportation Planning (both grassroots environmental groups), as well as state Sen. Steve Metcalf.

SEEExpo organizer Ned Doyle says the event is unique. “It’s not that we hold the biggest event of its kind in the South or likely the second-biggest event in the country; it’s the way the participants come together to offer the public a complete look at both the problems and issues, plus realistic and practical solutions.”

So long as it’s green

Henry Ford is credited with describing his breakthrough Model T with the phrase, “You can have any color car you like, so long as it is black.” These days, in many industrial nations, the bottom line on car color increasingly seems to be “green.” But while foreign competitors are racing ahead on fuel efficiency, U.S. manufacturers continue producing tanklike SUVs. (In July, Ford Motor Company announced that instead of delivering a promised increase in miles per gallon, its fleet-average fuel economy is actually declining — due in part to the introduction of the gargantuan Lincoln Aviator. The Ford Web site doesn’t mention the Aviator’s fuel consumption, and the site’s search engine yields no results for queries about “mpg” or “fuel efficiency.” Meanwhile, Ford blamed its recent lackluster sales on competition from foreign automakers — all of whom sell smaller, more efficient cars.)

The green auto fair will feature owner-converted bio-diesel cars and trucks plus an owner-converted, all-electric pickup truck. Commercially available vehicles on display will include the Accura RSX; the Honda Insight, Civic Hybrid and Civic Gx (CNG) cars; the Honda Accord, CR-V; the Mazda Protege sedan and station wagon; the Mazda B2300 pickup; the Mitsubishi Lancer and Eclipse; the Toyota Prius Hybrid Electric; the Toyota RAV 4 Electric ZEV; the city of Asheville’s electric Gem Car (used for parking enforcement); PSNC Energy’s CNG truck; a Ford CNG Crown Victoria, van and school bus; a bi-fuel ethanol vehicle made by General Motors; and Chrysler Neon and Sebring sedans.

In addition, a wide selection of high-efficiency, high-mileage vehicles will be ranked according to their “green book” listings — that is, how environmentally friendly the vehicle is deemed to be overall.

Most of the local dealers who are providing some of the vehicles for the event were unable to provide Xpress with useful information about which cars they would be displaying or fuel-economy and emissions statistics for the available green model lines. An exception was Dave Williams at Brian Easler Toyota, who is comfortably conversant with both current and forthcoming models from that manufacturer.

Williams said Easler will demonstrate a few of Toyota’s standard low-emissions models and also hopes to have a Prius Hybrid Electric on hand. The dealer has sold out of this year’s stock and doesn’t expect to receive a 2004 Prius until October at the earliest, so Williams is trying to persuade a Prius owner to show-and-tell at the event.

“The 2004 model has been redesigned, with a higher-horsepower electric motor and better fuel efficiency, ” Williams explained. “And the current model already gets 52 mpg in the city and 46 on the highway.” (Because the gasoline engine kicks in more often at higher speeds, the fuel efficiency is actually worse on the highway than in the city — the opposite of conventional cars.) Williams told Xpress that Toyota expects to introduce hybrid SUV-type models in the near future and has already introduced fuel-cell-powered vehicles in Japan.

Also slated for display at the fair is the Honda Insight — a slightly smaller hybrid vehicle that, according to InsightCentral.net, is said to average 61 mpg city/68 mpg highway, which may make it the most fuel-efficient production vehicle now available. (Comparably equipped, the Insight and Prius are both priced at about $21,000. Both Honda and Toyota have announced plans to convert their entire model lines to hybrid or electric vehicles in the near future.)

Turn your money green

Demonstrating that conservation is good for business, more than three dozen successful green enterprises will also be on hand to strut their stuff.

At least nine explicitly solar businesses will be represented, including Advanced Thermal Solutions, Atlantic Solar Products, Big Frog Mountain Corporation, Kyocera Solar, Rock Castle Solar, Solar Connexion, Solar Guys, Sumaco Enterprise, and Sundance Power Systems. With products and services ranging from photovoltaic electricity to sun-sourced radiant heating to tubular skylights to solar swimming-pool heaters — and from stand-alone power (for those longing to escape the grid) to net-metering add-ons that allow you to sell power to the grid whenever the sky is blue — choices abound.

Biomass conversion offers another way to use the earth’s current solar income to power our lives, and SEEE has no shortage of conversion plans for the masses. The most familiar use of biomass is burning wood, corn or alcohol.

New at this year’s event (and dovetailing with the car fair), Energy-Liberty, an Asheville startup, converts Mercedes diesel autos to run on heated vegetable oils. Proponents of this approach to future energy needs point out that WNC could grow its own fuel by switching from tobacco and feed-corn production to soy. (Vegan cars seem assured of an enthusiastic market in Asheville.)

On a more exotic level, Burnsville’s nonprofit EnergyXchange Renewable Energy Center uses gas generated from the local landfill to power clay and glass craft studios and greenhouses. With a Yancey/Mitchell County landfill site already on line and an Avery County installation nearing completion, the EnergyXchange clearly demonstrates the double-whammy benefit inherent in many environmentally sensitive technologies.

Landfill gas, a natural byproduct of rotting garbage, consists primarily of methane and carbon dioxide. While both gases contribute to the greenhouse effect that is rapidly warming our planet, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that methane traps 21 times more heat than CO2. By using the gas for such energy-intensive processes as glass-making and ceramics, the EnergyXchange not only substitutes a renewable energy source for a nonrenewable fossil fuel, but also avoids releasing that methane into the atmosphere. According to Jazmin Varela, environmental-education specialist with the nonprofit, “The EPA reported that in 2000, landfill-gas-to-energy projects had an impact equivalent to removing 2.8 million cars from the road.”

Besides fueling a greenhouse and a regional forestry-and-horticulture center, the Avery-landfill gas will also run micro-turbines to provide power for the Progress Energy grid and heat for an airport hangar. In conjunction with the Blue Ridge Resource Conservation & Development Council, the EnergyXchange is also pursuing landfill-gas projects at four other landfills in a seven-county region.

Doyle, meanwhile, is ebullient about the Expo’s solution-oriented approach. “Regional air pollution is a big problem, but it can be solved with cleaner cars, renewable fuels, clean energy sources, and better building practices. All these options are demonstrated and displayed here, so we’re not just complaining about problems, we’re working together regionally to solve them and develop a sustainable future.”

The scoop

The third annual Southern Energy & Environment Expo powers up at noon and runs till 6 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 22 at the Western North Carolina Agricultural Center in Fletcher (exit 9 off Interstate 26). Attendees can check out electric scooters and hybrid-electric cars, learn about passive- and active-solar homes, discover edible wild mushrooms and herbs, and learn how to lobby for environmentally friendly legislation or build a low-impact home.

The Expo continues on Saturday, Aug. 23 (10 a.m.-7 p.m.) and Sunday, Aug. 24 (10 a.m.-5 p.m.) with lectures and forums, plus tours sponsored by Earthaven Ecovillage, NCSEA Solar Homes, and the WNC Green Building Council. (See box, “Tour de green.”)

More than four dozen workshops will be presented throughout the weekend, exploring such topics as renewable-energy policies, green power or zero waste, residential wind systems, mortgage-free home ownership, green building in WNC, and how to challenge corporations. A daily cash prize will be awarded. Asheville city buses will run on the hour from the Asheville Transit Station (Asheland Avenue in downtown Asheville) to the Expo site (Friday and Saturday). Apple Country Transit will run every half-hour from Blue Ridge Community College to the site (all three days). Bus passengers will receive a 50-percent discount on the regular $6 admission price.

To learn more about the Expo, visit www.seeexpo.com. For more about transportation options, contact the Asheville Transit Authority (253-5691).

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About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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